I’m not here to be right, I’m here to win. That’s a phrase I often keep in mind, especially when I feel my own ego getting the best of me or when I see someone else’s ego affecting their judgment. In this context, win means making progress towards a larger strategic goal, likely by achieving some intermediate objective. So if you are playing to win and not just to be right then you are putting aside your own ego and emotional involvement in order to make progress towards a larger goal.
The ability to subordinate your own ego is critical in achieving success individually and, more importantly, for your team.
However, when advising companies, especially companies who are relatively young and have successful founders, I often observe interactions where people have lost sight of their actual mission and are instead focusing on having their idea or approach be the one chosen. In other words, they’re defending their ideas because of their ego instead of because of the progress the idea will achieve in relation to the overall objective.
Classic examples of this are debates on tabs versus spaces, emacs versus vim, MySQL versus PostgreSQL, and all the usual programming language debates. In general, you can build almost any tech product on the planet with any tools. You can go a long way with Java and MSSQL, or Python and PostgreSQL. There’s a point at which having debates about such topics is more about being right than about advancing towards the larger objective.
This kind of situation comes up in more forms than expected, and can be as trivial as debating what to name some variable or class even though both fit the coding standard.
This phenomenon seems to be especially common in successful startups, with young and intelligent founders. They’re used to being right, and they’re used to pushing their points and being assertive. Sometimes, their egos have grown along with their company and they have lost sight of the fact that humility is the most important trait for any leader. Although their assertiveness and focused approach might have afforded some fast progress in the early days of the company, it starts to be a detriment as the company grows.
If the founders are doing a good job of hiring and growing, they’re bringing in experienced talent who can make very valuable contributions to the business. These experienced professionals also come with their own opinions which, although probably not too different from the founders on a strategic level, will probably be different operationally. This then leads to another question I’m frequently asked: How do you handle situations where someone else’s solution isn’t as good as yours? The answer is simple. If the other person’s solution is still good enough and meets the requirements, you encourage them to use it.
Much of leadership is not about reaching an objective with the perfect path, but rather making continuous progress towards the objective. This continuous progress, over long time horizons, is more effective than trying to do everything perfectly along the way. In more technical terms, leadership is about global optimizations and not local optimizations. As a leader, it’s your duty to make sure you have enough strategic perspective, and enough control over your own ego, to determine when someone else’s solution is a better move for global optimization.
A good solution applied with vigor now is better than a perfect solution applied ten minutes later. -General George S. Patton Junior
Live by this quote. Just because your solution may seem like the 100% solution doesn’t mean the 85% solution won’t actually be better for the team and the business. Consider how much more committed someone will be if they are actually working on, and responsible for, implementing their own solution. It’s a lot more likely someone will fight to get their solution implemented on time and on target since they have a sense of ownership. If you tell them to implement your solution, then at best they’re just doing what they’re told, and that’s not a way to consistently lead people. You’ll just end up being another founder/micro-manager who can’t scale a growth-stage company and is eventually fired by the Board of Directors.
If someone else’s 85% solution will achieve progress now, if that solution will help you to win, then what’s the point in arguing for the implementation of your solution over a colleague’s? At that point, you’re only feeding your own ego and you should ask yourself the important question.
Am I here to be right, or am I here to win?